The rhetoric of expertise



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In American culture, reliance on expertise has become so commonplace that it is virtually impossible to avoid. It is the way we delegate the contents of our busy lives and defer authority in the interest of being efficient. Conventional wisdom defines an expert as someone who knows more about a subject or can perform better than the average person. However, expertise is not simply about one person's skills being different from another's. It is also fundamentally contingent on a struggle for ownership and legitimacy. Thus, it is subject to rhetoric. S/he who succeeds in persuading the public that s/he is an expert and that s/he is a better expert than any alternative, earns credibility, acknowledgement and power. Experts argue for the legitimacy of what they do. They articulate their experiences persuasively and always in the context of a rhetorical contest. The public ultimately validates one form of expertise over the other. To be an expert is to gain sanctioned rights to a specific area of knowledge or experience. My dissertation posits expertise as a rhetorical construct. It investigates how expertise is negotiated as a function of the rhetorical situation, its participants and constraints. Specifically, I ask: What rhetorical strategies do experts employ to compete for authority and legitimacy when they conflict with one another? Each chapter examines the rhetorical construction of expertise in a particular context--politics, history, medicine, and information. By drawing parallels between different experts from different chapters I ultimately identify a series of "unlikely allies." These are experts whose rhetorical strategies for constructing expertise trump differences of context and content. My rhetorical analysis demonstrates that, despite their apparent differences, experts have a great deal in common rhetorically. Indeed, the recurring use of the same rhetorical strategies through vastly different fields of specialization suggests that experts constitute a unique rhetorical genre.